by ooi_piano


A pilgrim prostrating toward Kailash — an interview with Hiroaki Ooï


— We tend to think of The Art of Fugue as the esoteric and abstruse work of the late Bach.

c0050810_13372286.jpgHiroaki Ooi (HO): If people have that impression, it is the interpreters who are largely responsible, and I’m terribly sorry about that. Bach himself wrote the notes in such a way that, if you listen to them, you’ll get it.

One factor though might be that listeners tends to feel they have to “sit upright” whenever they hear the word “fugue.” But one can sit back and think of it like Yoshimoto manzai [a Japanese stand-up comedy style involving exchange between two or more performers—trans.], because both elicit response in the audience by means of the eloquent interaction of voices. Had Bach titled the work The Art of Manzai or the Summa of Rhetoric Comedy, it would have looked much less formidable. According to Ryutaro Kamioka, “in most cases creating one truly brilliant piece of manzai is difficult enough. If you’ve got three, you are top-notch. It would be impossible to produce more than five.” And Hitoshi Matsumoto has said: “I could come up with a slapstick in half an hour, but a really funny piece of manzai would take at least a month, no matter how hard I try.” Since comedians of their caliber say this, it is probably so. I believe that each of the pieces in The Art of Fugue is comparable to “a truly brilliant manzai” that is thoroughly worked out and meticulously polished.

The first melody heard at the beginning of each piece is called the “subject,” and this corresponds to the boke [a comical line or gesture by one of the performers executing manzai—trans.] in manzai. The subject is repeated a number of times in different forms. The countersubject or tsukkomi [a sharp rejoinder to the boke—trans.] unravels the subject (boke) and elucidates it to the public. In other words, by looking closely at the tsukkomi, one can figure out what the boke was meant to say. A fugue then is a scene in which a couple of people are having a chat about a topic based on an interesting and inspiring idea.

Sometimes multiple voices ‘in conversation’ are indistinguishable from the ‘stage directions’, tickling ‘asides’ or ‘footnotes’; other times two voices seem to play one person, or one person seems to suggest two voices—all these maneuvers are also used in rakugo [a traditional Japanese comical storytelling—trans.]. The way a fugue unfolds, developing one material after another, gradually transforming the form of an initially simplistic topic (boke), has striking resemblances with Ohgiri in Shoten [a Japanese TV program where several rakugo comedians compete in making jokes on a given topic—trans.]

—What kind of instrument is clavichord?

HO: Bach loved to play the clavichord more than any other instrument, and he taught his sons how to play it with great patience and care. It is like harpsichord in that the sound subsides quickly after striking, leaving a reverberation that lingers long after the release; on a clavichord, however, one can give cantabile dynamic nuances, which is not possible on a harpsichord. But since controlling the touch on a clavichord is extremely difficult, and its tone is very delicate, the whole group of works originally intended for clavichord has for the most part been played on harpsichord. Clavichords do not have a damper pedal like modern pianos.

—Do piano and clavichord require different techniques?

c0050810_13374845.jpgHO: There are all sorts of clavichords, 028.gifand the more faithful the instrument is to the historical model (like the one I used for this recording), the stronger the demand for the technique for clavichord proper, distinct from that for piano, harpsichord, or organ. On a modern piano you could just hit the key and make a sound; by contrast, playing a clavichord is as hard as sinking three-pointers a thousand times in a row. I was greatly inspired by Griepenkerl’s methodology that Miklos Spanyi has kindly suggested to me. Taking off from there, I am currently groping for my own way of playing. Emmanuel Bach once wrote, “Someone who can play the clavichord with good art will also be able to play the harpsichord well, but but never the other way around [aber nicht umgekehrt].” I think it’s high time that we once again faced this statement seriously.

—Why play on a clavichord, rather than piano or harpsichord?

HO: There is a certain uneasiness to listening to a consort ensemble without continuo; it’s like watching a manzai through a camera that isn’t following the artistic moves made in the narrative. Between modern and period instruments, I would choose the latter because of its absolute superiority of the timbre. Who would prefer farmed tilapias to wild sea breams? Besides, contrapuntal works like The Well-Tempered Clavier and The Art of Fugue, where the voices interact and overlap in the middle register, do not suit harpsichord or organ. On these instruments it would be difficult to pick up on the boke, to make tsukkomi to it, and consequently to have a clear sight of the landscape.

A more negative reason is that, on a clavichord I can, though barely, grab the interval of major tenth that appears in the Contrapunctus No. 12. I couldn’t do that on a harpsichord or organ.

—Since the sound of the clavichord is so soft, should the listener turn down the volume so as to experience the instrument more realistically?

c0050810_13384734.jpgHO: Absolutely not.

While it takes about 20 minutes for the human eye to adjust to the darkness when looking at the stars in the sky (dark adaptation), by contrast, adapting to light takes several times shorter. Unless you have an incredible hearing of the Mabaan tribe from the forest area in east Sudan, taking a few steps apart from the clavichord easily makes it impossible to appreciate its nuances very well.

Xenakis’s piano concertos are similar in this respect, namely that it is very difficult to realize the sound-image of the works in a live setting. The solo piano part, which one can clearly hear on a recording, tends to get drowned in the exorbitant roars of the orchestra in a concert hall. As for the clavichord, even in front of a small audience (say several people or at most a couple of dozens), the player has to keep exercising conscious effort to make the instrument “resound.” But to a recording microphone it suffices just to whisper. And it is a peculiarity of the twenty-first century that we can have a handy random access to this faint whisper, even on a train. Some may find the player’s snorting distracting, but “that’s how it is with a clavichord recording” (Mr. Potvlieghe’s words), so please let it pass.

—Is it pointless to play Bach on a modern piano?

HO: One might say that modern piano is at the apogee of sophistication, or one might say it is a lanky pumpkin at the very end of the vine. Bach’s sons were living in an unstable time of great unpredictable changes, and I don’t think Bach turned red with them, saying “He that is not with me is against me.”

c0050810_13414763.jpgOn the other hand, it is true that, when a modern piano player plays a period instrument, what comes out of the fingers is nothing but the sound of a modern piano. In short, since it is whatever is sounding in one’s head that flows out from the hand, the choice of the interface is in the end not an essential problem. As someone who performs contemporary works, I try to be as sensitive as possible to the choice of performance practice corresponding to the style of the composition. For—scary as this may sound—it is something “one can just hear.”

—What is the instrument used on this recording?

HO: For this disc I used a Saxon five-octave unfretted model by Joris Potvlieghe, who has his atelier in Tollembeek, Belgium. This is just an aside, but the day before the recording session for this disc, Gustav Leonhardt was holding a salon concert of early Baroque music at the atelier, using the same instrument.

Mr. Potvlieghe’s instruments are highly acclaimed for their expressive richness, but this doesn’t directly mean they are easy to play. “I always find that troubling,” he says. But after all the good instrument is the one with the expressive power, and the kind of “user-friendliness” answering to the technique of piano or harpsichord has little to do with the quality of the instrument itself. Unfortunately, as yet he has never delivered his instruments to Japan.

—Which manuscripts and editions did you use?

c0050810_13433298.jpgHO: I used the final draft included in the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (NBA), keeping also the first published edition and the autograph score at hand. People tend to be interested more in the genesis of the work, the edition used, and the choice of temperament, rather than the interpretation inherent in the performance itself; I have hard time understanding why.

By the way, the so-called “Berlin autograph,” not only as a whole but also in details, is obviously an unfinished draft awaiting revision, and so to talk about its relevance, I think, is to be disrespectful to Bach. There the marvelous Contrapunctus No. 4 is not yet existent, and No. 10 wants vitality—these alone are enough to make the version disappointing. To be sure, there are points where one can enjoy interesting modal turns; after all, however, Bach blue-penciled them.

—Could you say something about the “unfinished” fugue?

c0050810_1346499.jpgHO: I love playing Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica, and I can hardly omit the unfinished fugue. Since I am not a composer, I am not subject to the question “Why don’t you complete it yourself?” Thank goodness. During the last two hundred years, various attempts at completion were made. I tried about twenty of them, but in most cases the strength of the music plummeted all of a sudden, disintegrating like a smashed chunk of Jell-O. This is surprising given the fact that Sebastian Bach has long been the model for study in counterpoint. Then again, even in cases where one attempts to restore the damaged part, as in Venus de Milo, it’s very difficult to wipe off the sense of adhocness. So there may have been no hope of success from the outset.

This fugue may produce a particular kind of effect by virtue of its abrupt ending. In this regard it reminds me of Lafcadio Hearn’s In a Cup of Tea [a Japanese horror story passed down in its unfinished form—trans.]. Come to think of it, when Masaki Kobayashi made it into a film, Toru Takemitsu, who was directing the sound, utilized the sound of Satsuma biwa [a type of Japanese short-necked fretted lute, played with a plectrum and also used percussively—trans.], whose tone has some affinity with that of clavichord.

—And about the closing choral on this disc?

HO: The abbey where we made this recording owns a Baroque organ made by Mr. Potvlieghe. The original plan was to play the choral prelude on that organ and record it as a bonus track to this disc, but unfortunately we had to give that up because it didn’t have enough foot pedals. Obviously, the piece is written for organ and unrelated to this collection of fugues. But one could perhaps imagine: in dictating this piece from his deathbed, Bach might have used a clavichord. So we recorded it anyway. Besides, when played on the organ, the cantus firmus on the reed pipes often comes to the fore too imposingly, overshadowing the tsukkomi’s by the other voices on the flue pipes. It sounds a bit awkward. The picture I have in mind is Bach the person, relaxed at home after coming back from the court or the church, having doffed the wig, as seen on the cover artwork for this disc.

c0050810_19294929.jpg—How would you characterize the interpretation or attempts made on this disc? Are you taking the “historically informed” approach? What should a listener be aware of?

HO: Please don’t feel like you have to listen to it this way or that way.

These days, it seems that for some the so-called “historically informed” approach has come to mean a certain kind of bias in musical expression. But originally it was meant be a movement encouraging us “to use our own head.” There is no royal road in early music; in fact, it’s in vain to believe there is a single direction to follow. And it’s not like you’ll get sued if you “don’t do it the right way.”

c0050810_19314870.jpgSince I am Japanese, I am not obliged to stick deferentially to the stiffened Aryan model. To my eyes, overreaching oneself and speaking portentously is not necessarily the only way of expressing reverence to the great composer. Furthermore, although this work is one of the composer’s last, it is no sinking Titanic with Parnassian gestures, nor should it make one lament in the grievous valley of D minor. Such things are in fact out of keeping with that awe-inspiring systematic twill of counterpoint that allows absolutely no sag in the texture. In the part where the augmented subject presses on from behind, I felt terrified as if Stephen King’s langoliers are stalking me.

It is a regrettable fact that, while Sebastian Bach loved clavichord above all other instruments, and also valued it most highly for educational purpose, the instrument is a wallflower musicologists and performers alike have seldom asked to dance with. This is an issue having to do with the ground for any keyboard technique, as well as with the foundation of keyboard instrument education. I hope that this disc makes a humble boke, inviting further shots at retrieving the lost art.
by ooi_piano | 2009-03-31 23:21 | Comments(0)